Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ask the Administrator: ERP!

A new correspondent writes:

I am currently on the administrative market.  I've had one interview, and this topic did not come up, but listed in the job description of my second interview is "Knowledge of and ability to use current administrative and educational technologies."  Is there any general consensus of what this means? The educational technologies, I think I probably understand more than administrative.  Would you assume they are looking for particular software knowledge?  If so what are the most common administrative software applications?

I'd guess that 'educational technologies' refers to learning management systems (WebCT, Sakai, etc), and to some of the trappings of the modern classroom (PowerPoint, clickers, podcasts, etc). Depending on how progressive the place is, it could also refer to some of the support programs that often accompany distance learning, like lockdown browsers, online quiz apps, and the like. In a given program, it could also refer to program-specific technologies.

'Administrative technologies' sounds vaguely Foucauldian, though in practice, it's probably somewhat less sinister than that. The most common uses of that term, in my experience, are in reference to either budgeting software or the ERP system. (ERP alternately stands for 'enterprise resource planning,' or the sound you make when you try to get it to work.) The ERP system is the central nervous system of the college. (Datatel and Banner are the two I've seen most often, though there are others.) It handles course scheduling, student registration, student grades, graduation audits (automated checks of student records against archived curricula, to show you what remaining courses a student needs to graduate), room assignments, and in some cases, purchase requisitions. These systems are deadly boring, but incredibly important. When they screw up, it's a very big deal.

(When I was there, Proprietary U had a legacy ERP of its own design, which it has since replaced. It was awful, and some of us believe to this day that it was haunted. One semester it automatically generated dismissal notices to every graduating senior the day after graduation. The phone calls could be described as 'irate' and 'legion.')

Knowing how to make an ERP do handstands can make you a very valuable commodity, depending on the level of position you hold. Most Institutional Research reports are run through the ERP, so seemingly banal decisions like “how to code the cohort of students in this option of that major” have ripple effects years later. Knowing how to pull the relevant numbers from the ERP for a given query, without inadvertently distorting the results, requires a tricky mix of art and science. I've known people (hi!) who know which questions to ask, but who don't have the first clue how to make the system generate an answer. And I've known people who can make the system sing, but who don't have enough of a grasp of the academic context to know how to phrase a query; these folks can generate mountains of completely meaningless data without even knowing they're doing it.

ERPs and FERPA don't mix. (I am soooo much fun at parties...) FERPA dictates which bits of student information are available to which kind of employee. ERPs were designed by software engineers. In practice, that means that, say, the one piece of information that a professor needs to advise a student properly is often trapped on a screen with other information to which the professor is not entitled access. Clunky workarounds ensue. Local IT departments are loathe to custom-program, since that quickly leads down the primrose path of endless patching. I've been trapped in multiple-hour meetings during which lots of intense people with very partial information debate third-level workarounds for parsing access according to what amount to clearances. Life is much too short for such things.

Depending on the job for which you're applying, the degree to which you'll need to be an ERP jockey can vary widely. I'm guessing that if they bothered to specify it, they're expecting something. Each system has its quirks, but if you can navigate your way around one, you can learn another. To the extent that you can demonstrate that you're not a technophobe, and that you're capable of working with a system sufficiently to get what you need, you'll probably be okay.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any good ERP stories out there?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.